Saturday, July 3, 2010

The age of Technology and Design

Every time a new line of cribs or high chairs is recalled because of loose nuts and bolts or other safety concerns, my first reaction is: haven't people been making these things long enough to know how to make ones that don't fall apart? The problem, of course, isn't that manufacturers yet haven't figured out how to make a safe crib, but that they're constantly trying out new designs to cut costs or look appealing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it just doesn't apply. Instead: the older the appliance, the more likely it is to still be working. One might say the same things about math pedagogy.  

To extend the metaphor between appliances and schools, consider the modern dishwasher. Our three-year-old model has quite the high tech interface: all sorts of buttons for all sorts of options (water temperature; type of dishware), some of which no sane person would ever select (rinse only?  delayed start time???). Open it up, and here's what you see. A detergent compartment whose door no longer opens during the wash cycle; wheels on the lower rack that frequently pop off when you wheel it in or out; silverware holders whose mesh is so coarse that some of our silverware handles extend through it, further impeding the lower rack's wheelability; upper-rack dividers that flop down when anything pushes against them. Layers of grime on the bottom that (so the repairman tells us) require frequent manual mop-up. A machine that (so the repairman tells us) can't handle loose particles larger than grains of rice, such that all dishes must first be "pre-washed"; and, even when we remember to pre-wash every dish, put the narrow-stemmed forks and spoons in upside down, and restrict all large pots to the upper rack so that they don't block the water circulation, still doesn't get the dishes clean enough that we don't have to manually inspect them once they're "done."

While sorting the clean cups from those with cooked-on coffee grounds, orange juice pulp, or milk film, I sometimes find myself contemplating the modern school.  Here we have computers in every classroom, fancy graphing calculators, wireless Internet, and Smart Boards.  But probe deeper, and you find modern math books that ensure neither mastery of the basics nor true mathematical challenge; recent education school graduates whose programs train them neither how to teach math fundamentals to mastery nor how to teach challenging math; and students who increasingly lack fluency in the standard algorithms and facility with geometric proofs and the Quadratic Formula. 

As with the modern dishwasher, the technological frills are in place, but the basic mechanics, the nuts and bolts, are sorely lacking. In this new, right-brain world championed so persistently by Daniel Pink, the Industrial Age has been not enhanced, but supplanted, by the Age of Technology and Design. And thus parents who care about math, like dishwasher users who care about clean dishes, must manually mop up after the machine bleeps "finished."


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Nice metaphor!

I particularly like the bit about having to 'manually mop up after the machine bleeps "finished."'

Anonymous said...

Good post. Adding bells and whistles at the expense of basics is a problem. That said, I admit to using some of my dishwasher's options. I raise and lower the racks and parts thereof regularly to accommodate different sized pieces. I use the special cycles less frequently but do find the rinse only option useful on occasion. When there are dishes that are especially dirty or smelly that you do want to let sit, but do not have a full load so do not want to run the complete cycle, then I run the quick rinse. We generally do not rinse the dishes before we put them in our dishwasher. My understanding is that the machine uses less water than rinsing or washing by hand.

kcab said...

LOL, metaphor doesn't work here. Love my Miele.

I do agree generally about the trend to redesign without adequate consideration of all the issues. Unfortunately engineering pays less well than, say, financial services or law. Or perhaps the problem isn't pay but increasing specialization, IDK.